Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy

Today’s read is regarded as one of the classics of the vintage crime fiction. I’ve tried McCloy’s work a couple of times in the past and decided now would be an apt moment to take another sample, given that she will be talked about at this year’s Bodies from the Library conference. Taking its’ title from a verse in 1 Corinthians, this book probes the extent and limitations of human understanding in a mystifying set of circumstances.

The story opens with Faustina Crayle being dismissed from her job mid-term, as an art teacher at Brereton boarding school. Yet despite the 6 months pay she is given, the headteacher refuses to give a specific reason for her dismissal, suggesting instead that she doesn’t quite fit in and creates the wrong atmosphere. After that we see her interacting with teachers, pupils and other staff members and suffice to say, whilst you can’t put your finger on it, there is something just not quite right. However, the one teacher who is prepared to be friends with Faustina, is Gisela von Honenems, who incidentally refers to her friends’ job loss in a letter to her own friend, Dr Basil Willing. Readers familiar with McCloy’s work will know that this psychiatrist and medical assistant to the New York District Attorney, is also an amateur sleuth. Gisela’s brief comments arouse a strong curiosity within Basil and it is not long before he begins poking his nose in…

Overall Thoughts

McCloy sets up a very intriguing and puzzling set of circumstances. From the very first words of the book; a literary allusion to a line from a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, the reader is primed to not fully trust Faustina. Is she a wholly innocent victim or is she culpable of something? The mystification is built up steadily by observing the reactions of those around Faustina, though I wouldn’t say the reader is unnerved or made to feel any chills. Perhaps this is because McCloy doesn’t make these opening chapters particularly immersive, in a goose bumps sort of way.

I think it would be fair to say that this novel has a measured pace, as layer after layer is peeled back from the initial inexplicable events. Yet readers expecting a conclusive and provable ending will be disappointed. McCloy gives her readers a puzzling story, but not a puzzle mystery.  I would even go as far as saying that she devises so mystifying a puzzle, with so little in the way of clues, that a substantial solution is not really in the offing, which is evinced by the open-ended nature of the denouement. Basil’s reluctance to voice his ideas or to point out clues as he goes along also adds to this situation. Not being able to figure out the solution proffered might not have been so bad a thing, if perhaps the chill and suspense factor could have been ramped up a little more. Though a surprise first death did produce an interesting new direction for the tale.

I totally appreciate that this book is considered a classic by many, and my pain levels may well have affected my ability to enjoy it, but for me the story was alright; neither boring me senseless nor sparking intense or passionate enjoyment. So yes I am very much prepared for a barrage of comments from ardent fans of the work. If anyone wants me I am in my blogger bunker…

Rating: 3.75/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Locked Room

Calendar of Crime: May (6) Original Publication Month

See also: deadyesterday, Bev Hankins, Ben and Sergio have also reviewed this title.

15 comments

  1. I am very much prepared for a barrage of comments from ardent fans of the work

    Hell, I know it takes all sorts, but f anyone is an ardent fan of this then you feel they’re a bit beyond critical appraisal of anything and will most likely leave you alone! I found this…fine — like you, nothing to spark raptures but not bad enough (or long enough!) to warrant disregarding altogether. I read the short story it was expanded from recently, and for a little while struggled to remember what was added for the novel. But then, Mr. Splitfoot aside, I’m yet to find anything of McCloy’s to get terribly excited about…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I can always rely on you JJ to back me up in not liking a well known title. Fairly sure it is just you and I who don’t enjoy Smallbone Deceased.
      Slightly disconcerting not to have any comments telling me I’m wrong in my estimation of this book, though perhaps McCloy fans don’t get up so early in the morning!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel the thing this book really has going for it is that its basic idea is bold and different. It suffers from McCloy’s usual repetitive padding, though, and the ending (as I recall) is pretty disappointing. Maybe you would have liked it more if your expectations hadn’t been raised by its classic status?
    I totally agree with you about Smallbone Deceased, though – couldn’t get into it at all.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Never fear Kate. After your egregious error about Highsmith, we know what to expect. 😉

    I pretty much agree here. I might rate it a bit lower actually. I thought it overlong, slow, and as you say not very “immersive”. And the gimmick disappoints. The story certainly has some interest, but for me it did not come close to its reputation.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think McCloy is a good writer, and can engage the reader well – but I agree that this wasn’t especially interesting a mystery. I’ve only read three of her novels – ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, ‘Dance of Death’ and ‘Deadly Truth’ – and liked ‘Truth’ best.

    I don’t think I’ve heard of the author you’re reviewing next – and so I’m looking forward to the review.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am sorry to hear about your being in pain. As to Smallbone Deceased … Michael Gilbert is arguably my favorite mystery author, but I was underwhelmed by this specific title as well. I intend to re-read it at some point, however.

    Like

  6. I loved this one for the characters, atmosphere, and almost Gothic elements. The ending, especially, is genuinely terrifying, but it’s unsettling all the way through. There are quite a few dull moments, though. McCloy has a sneaky and mean tendency to hide clues within an otherwise boring discussion, knowing that most readers will skim right over it and miss the clues hidden in plain sight. A few of the scenes I most hated in this one turned out to be stuffed with clues later. Others, however, were just as boring in hindsight, especially all of Basil’s philosophical discussions, so I can see why it might not appeal.

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